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Voters Approve Nebraska Casino Expansion

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Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Nebraska voters are set to approve three constitutional amendments that will legalize, regulate and tax commercial gaming, respectively. The “yes” vote for Initiatives 429, 430 and 431 permits the state’s six horse tracks to offer “Las Vegas-style” games.

It could also open the door for the state’s first-ever sportsbooks. though that is far from a certainty at this point.

Some votes were still outstanding as of Wednesday morning, but all three measures needed to legalize casino gaming were up by roughly two-to-one margins.

[Where All 50 States Stand with Sports Betting]

When Will Casino Gaming Begin in Nebraska?

The ballot measures legalize “games of chance” at the six horse racing tracks, including slot machines and table games such as roulette and craps. Most if not all six of the newly eligible facilities will likely expand as quickly as possible to offer these games, with at least temporary offerings coming as early as next year and permanent expanded casino-gaming facilities coming not long after.

Nebraska is one of the last states to approve casino gaming and one of the latest to do so through an expansion of its horse tracks. States such as Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania have converted horse tracks into “racinos” that combine both racing and casino gaming.

The “yes” votes come after gaming backers spent years trying to expand options in the Cornhusker State. Neighboring states, notably Iowa, have grown their gaming options in recent decades, and hundreds of millions of gambling dollars from Nebraskans are estimated to cross state lines annually.

Not coincidently, horse racing revenues have plummeted since Native American and commercial gaming began expanding nationwide in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Backers view racinos as a way to not only generate new tax revenues, but support horse tracks in the face of dwindling attendance.

What About Nebraska Sports Betting?

It’s unclear if these amendments will allow sportsbooks. It also remains to be seen when – or even if – sports betting could begin.

The amendments allow horse tracks to offer games of chance, a definition of games that usually doesn’t include sports betting. This means It may require a separate act of the legislature – or possibly a separate constitutional ballot measure – to allow sports betting at the casinos.

Lawmakers tried to legalize daily fantasy sports in recent years, arguing they are games of skill and not games of chance, thereby not subject to the state constitution’s gambling restrictions. The precedent that DFS contests are games of skill would likely mean sports wagering is as well.

Unfortunately for gaming backers, Nebraska lawmakers have not passed DFS legislation, meaning sports wagering could also face stiff political headwinds.

If retail sports betting goes forward, it likely still faces better odds than statewide mobile wagering. Online betting in a state that has resisted most new gaming forms for decades could be an even more logistical and political climb.

Was Nebraska Casino Gaming Expected to Pass?

Nebraska faced strong supporters for both the “yes” and “no” sides that made projecting the outcome difficult.

Advocates, led by a gaming group consortium called Keep the Money in Nebraska, spent more than $3 million promoting the amendments. As its name indicated, the support group centered their pitch around potential revenue gains if Nebraskans stayed home to gambling instead of crossing state lines.

They worked against opposition groups including Gambling with the Good Life and the Nebraska Family Alliance, which argued increased gaming would spark addictions and other societal ills. Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Nebraska football head coach Tom Osborne publicly campaigned against the amendments and donated to the “no” campaign.

Ultimately, supporters’ superior financial resources, the potential for increased in-state revenues and a nationwide cultural shift in favor of regulated gambling all helped push the successful constitutional amendments.

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